Diving Free - Freediving in South Africa

Words: Paul Winter | Photos: Mark van Coller, Betty Nandi & Pure Apnea

Paul Winter takes a look at freediving in South Africa at the moment, and chats to two divers who are going deeper and further underwater than ever before.

Right now, the sport of freediving in South Africa is alive and kicking. Freediving, as you might know, involves diving and swimming underwater while holding your breath. The sport combines a love for being in the ocean (and swimming pools, freshwater lakes, and the like), with the physical and mental challenge of learning how to hold your breath for an extended period of time. Similar to swimming, freediving also involves learning how to move fluidly and efficiently in the water. With only one breath of air, freedivers need to be as economical as possible underwater.

South Africans do tend to be a competitive bunch, and we tend to thrive on personal progress and success. If you combine this with the idea that freediving is also a competitive sport (Who can dive deeper under water? Further in a pool? Hold their breath for the longer?), then it’s obvious why more and more South African freedivers are pushing the limits of the sport and setting records.

Two of these divers are Sophia van Coller and John Daines. Sophia has just broken the SA women’s record in the ‘free immersion’ deep diving event, and John recently set a new SA record in the pool-based ‘dynamic with fins’ event. Both divers are from Cape Town.

I chatted to them about their love of freediving, and what went into each of their records.

Q & A with Sophia van Coller

In the deep diving ‘free immersion’ category of freediving, the diver descends hand-over-hand down a dive line, collects a small depth tag on a bottom plate, and then pulls themselves back to the surface. Diving at the Red Sea’s ‘Blue Hole’, on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Sophia van Coller dove down to an incredible 53 metres for the record and returned to the surface, all on one breath of air.

Q: Sophia, 53 metres is a long way down under the water! What goes through your mind during a dive like this?

I find on this dive, my mind is very task orientated and it sticks to pretty much exactly what my body is doing at that moment. So I break my dive up into several steps and just stay in the moment and try not to worry about several steps ahead. That works really well for me.

Q: Obviously, being able to hold your breath for a long time is critical to being a successful freediver, but what are the other challenges that freedivers face when diving deep like this?

Yes, a good breath-hold goes a long way. But the two big challenges faced the deeper you go is firstly, to being able to equalise the increasing air pressure in your ear spaces, and secondly, allowing your body to adapt to the increased pressure. You also have to be in complete control of your mind, as stress and fear can derail even the best of freedivers.

Q: The diving equipment required for your record is quite unique. You use a slick-skin wetsuit for efficient movement through the water. You also use a nose clip and specialised ‘fluid goggles’ that maximise equalising efficiency. Could you explain these a bit more?

I dive mostly in my OrcaBreathe freedive suit, which is great for both depth and pool training. It’s very streamlined and its flexibility allows me to move easily. Regular diving masks have an air space that is squeezed smaller and smaller by the pressure as you descend deeper underwater, and this needs to be equalised with air pressure, by blowing through your nose. In scuba diving, you have an unlimited supply of air for this, but you only have a little bit of air to work with while freediving. Fluid goggles are designed to be filled with water just before your dive, which means you don’t have to waste precious amounts of air equalising them. Special lenses fitted to the inside of the goggles enable you to ‘see’ underwater. I also wear a nose clip, which allows me to equalise without having to use my hands, which are needed to pull myself down the dive line. When you can trust your equipment 100%, it allows you to be much more relaxed and you can just focus on the dive.

Q: Dahab’s ‘Blue Hole’ (Red Sea, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt) is one of the finest places in the world to freedive. It’s deep, sheltered from currents and waves, and the water is always very clear. What makes the place so special for you?

The Blue Hole is quite sheltered from the open sea by the coral and rarely has rough surface conditions. This makes it quite pleasant to do your preparation breathe-ups on the surface. It is surrounded by harsh desert landscape and everything seems lifeless until you enter the water, where you are greeted by brightly coloured fish and corals. The visibility is very good on most days and you get a real sense of freedom underwater.

Q: Where to from here? You can hold your breath for a lot longer and you have loads of ‘bottom time’. You can go deeper right?

Yes, sure I feel this is just the beginning. I have plenty of bottom time, so I would like to explore depth a bit more. I will focus the rest of the year on pool training, fitness, and my family, and then next year I’ll continue further down this road.

Q: Besides diving safely, which of course plays a huge part in all kinds of freediving and breath-hold activity (see below), what advice would you give to anyone wanting to start freediving?

Try to team up with a group of experienced freedivers, who can be your safety buddies if you want to do pleasure dives. Try it out, and if you like it, do at least your Level 1 course, so that you can be confident in the water and also be someone else’s safety buddy. Make sure you have reliable equipment because a leaky mask or ill-fitting wetsuit can spoil any dive.

Q: Dream freediving trip/destination?

I would absolutely love to go dive Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas and if I’m lucky enough, do a course with World Champion Freediver William Trubridge. I would actually love to explore other parts in the Bahamas too, such as the deep walls of Eleuthera. I worked there years ago as a scuba instructor and would give anything to go back as a freediver. That is my ultimate dream.

Q&A with John Daines

In the pool-based freediving events, competitors set out to swim as far as possible underwater on one breath. At the 2013 SA Freediving Championships, held at Strand’s indoor pool in the Western Cape, John Daines set a new South African freediving record in the ‘dynamic with fins’ discipline. Using his monofin and a dolphin-kick swimming style, John ended up swimming an amazing 175 metres on one breath.

Q: John, 175 metres on one breath is a long way! How long did this dive take you?

This was my first competition in two years, so I was quite nervous and ended up almost sprinting through my performance. This isn't ideal, as slower, more relaxed dives usually result in better performances.I covered the 175 metres in 2 minutes and 18 seconds.

Q: Obviously, freedivers try to relax and conserve as much oxygen as possible during their dives. But you also have to expend energy to swim for this length of time. What kind of training do you do to be able to swim distances like these?

For me freediving is 80% mental and 20% physical. When I first started freediving, most of my training involved overcoming mental obstacles to relax and conserve energy. Through the years, my training has shifted from the mental to the physical and I now focus on technique and my ability to withstand hypoxia (low oxygen).

Q: Freediving is often about staying very relaxed underwater, but you also have to focus on correct technique, dive times, and so on. What goes through your mind on a dive like this?

During the actual dive, very little goes through my mind. I try to go into 'autopilot' mode. Thinking uses oxygen!

Q: You had a carbon-fibre monofin, purpose-built freediving wetsuit, and a neck weight instead of a traditional weight belt? Please tell us a bit more about the equipment you used for this ‘dynamic’ dive?

I used a fibreglass monofin, which is used by many competitive freedivers. Monofins are far more efficient that traditional bi-fins, but require good dolphin-kick technique. I had Coral Wetsuits in Cape Town make me a custom, very thin, smooth-skin wetsuit specifically designed for pool freediving. The streamlining achieved using this type of wetsuit helps considerably. Lastly, I wore a 6.5 kg neck weight, which levels out and streamlines my body position in the water, thereby reducing drag.

Q: Apparently, you’ve actually dived even further (over 190 metres!) in training. Freediving wise, what are you going to be up to in the next few months and are we going to see more records?

The next thing on my list is taking a shot at the South African DNF 'dynamic without fins' record.

Q: What about the depth events? Does deep diving play a big part in your freediving?

I love deep freediving, but unfortunately, we are limited in South Africa as far as depth training facilities go. The sea in South Africa is too rough and unpredictable for decent depth training. As a result, most South African freedivers are limited to training in freshwater quarries, the deepest being just over 40 m. At R115 per entry, the 40 m quarry is also extremely expensive! I have been lucky enough to be able to afford a few trips overseas to the Red Sea and Philippines where I have gained good depth freediving experience, but I still need a lot more to break the South African CWT depth record of 85 m held by Bevan Dewar. A couple of SA freedivers have managed to market themselves well enough to get sponsorship and train overseas. I guess I will need to do the same.

Q: Besides diving safely, which of course plays a huge part in all kinds of freediving and breath-hold activity (see below), what advice would you give to anyone getting involved in freediving? Can anyone learn to hold their breath for an extended period of time?

I recommend that they find a good freediving instructor and complete a beginner’s course. Almost anyone can freedive as long as they are in good health. The women's freediving world record holder is over 50 years old, so age is clearly not a hindrance.

Q: What do you think is going to be happening on the South African freediving scene in the next year or two?

The South African freediving scene has been stagnant for over a decade, but the people who are currently involved are extremely passionate. I can only see freediving as a sport and recreational activity growing exponentially. When Sophia and John aren’t breaking records, both divers look forward to spending time in the ocean and interacting with the Cape’s marine life and sea creatures.

“Cape Town is a recreational freediver's dream!”says John. “We have seals, sharks, dolphins, fish, reefs, kelp forests, and funky swim throughs. At the moment, my favourite dive site is in the Oudekraal MPA, which has a small, friendly colony of seals that you can freedive with.”

Sophia says her favourite fun freediving is playing with the seals (she says they make amazing dive buddies!) at Partridge Point, which is just south of Simon's Town. She also mentions the Venus Pools at Cape Point as a very special place to dive, due to the fish life and the fact that it’s a fantastic place for a day outing.

Freediving competition categories

There are two broad categories of competition freediving – the depth events and pool-based disciplines.

Depth events:
Free immersion (FIM): The athlete descends to depth and back up by pulling hand over hand on a vertical diving rope.
Constant weight (CWT): Constant weight involves diving to depth and back up with the aid of diving fins, but without pulling on the diving rope.
Constant weight no-fins (CNF): In this discipline, the athlete dives to depth and back up without the aid of diving fins and without pulling on the diving rope.

Pool events:
Dynamic with fins (DYN): In this discipline, the athlete swims as far as possible underwater on one breath, with the aid of diving fins. These days, most athletes use a ‘monofin’ and dolphin-kick style.
Dynamic without fins (DNF): Here, the athlete swims as far as possible underwater, typically using a modified breaststroke swimming style, on one breath and without the aid of diving fins.
Static apnea (STA): This involves athletes holding their breath and lying face down in water for as long as possible. This discipline tests a freediver's breath-holding ability and is regarded as one of the most mentally challenging.

Safety first

Anyone can learn to freedive. But just like many ‘alternative’ adventure sports, freediving can be a deadly activity if done in the wrong way. The golden rules are to always dive with qualified and experienced freedivers (never freedive alone!) and from the beginning, seek out certified and experienced supervision and instruction. •

Find out more

There are a number of freediving instructors in South Africa who offer qualified tuition from Beginner to Advanced and Instructor level. Currently, the Pure Apnea freediving organisation is doing a lot to promote competitions and other freediving events around the country and abroad. To find out more about these events, visit www.pureapnea.com.